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Wellness programs get boost from new technologies

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NEW YORK—Companies looking to maximize the effectiveness of their employee wellness initiatives must be willing to incorporate new technologies and innovative program designs, a panel of experts said last week at the Northeast Business Group on Health's 2012 Health & Wellness Benefit Conference in New York.

While physicians and insurers await the development of more advanced clinical decision-assistance software (see related story) to improve claim outcomes, employers are turning to Web-based information management and resource platforms, telecommunications and mobile applications to broaden access and tailor their wellness programs to their employees, panelists said.

“Understanding the ways technology can drive engagement, reduce hospital recidivism and ultimately improve health outcomes is key,” said Daryl Risinger, a senior vp at Addison, Texas-based Concentra Inc.

Over time, Mr. Risinger said, employers have learned that education-based wellness programs—particularly those utilizing traditional content delivery models—struggle to generate significant participation levels or enhanced health outcomes.

“With wellness, we need an improved methodology for bringing about behavioral changes,” Mr. Risinger said, noting that education-based models tend only to attract the “worried well” instead of the more at-risk members of an employee population.

“It's not just about putting the content out there,” he said. “If you simply provide education, only the people with a thirst for knowledge will use it.”

Among the most popular and simplest strategies to implement to drive employee wellness engagement is the use of smartphone applications, Mr. Risinger said, particularly given the rising ubiquity of smartphones in the consumer market.

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“It's where we spend our time,” Mr. Risinger said. “We wake up with our smartphone and we go to bed with it. There's a natural fit. It's simply a matter of understanding what the messaging needs to be and how to get to the members.”

A more robust model by which companies are putting technology to work in pursuit of more effective employee wellness is the implementation of Web-based interactive resources and medical data management platforms, panelists said. At Hopkinton, Mass.-based EMC Corp., benefits managers worked with network health care providers and third-party providers to design a wellness program centered around individual employees rather than the workforce as a whole.

“Our vision was the accelerated adoption of consumerism by helping employees take responsibility for their health through targeted and meaningful health management programs,” said Delia Vetter, EMC's senior director of benefits and programs. “What we needed to do was create a connected health care infrastructure, create a less redundant and more efficient health care delivery system and accelerate the adoption of health care technologies.”

Within EMC's branded HealthLink wellness concept, each participating employee's medical utilization and costs incurred, biometric screening data, health risk assessment findings and wellness participation results are combined to generate a personal health record accessible online or via smartphone through the HealthLink portal.

“That information provides a greater transparency for the true cost of health care,” said Ms. Vetter, who was the Business Insurance 2011 Benefit Manager of the Year.

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With that breadth of information, Ms. Vetter said, employees and their dependents can track their performance on fitness goals and other wellness initiatives, and receive targeted reference guides, health advisories, physician recommendations and other guidance based on recent diagnoses or treatments.

Marrying those separate data fields in one consolidated system also provides a significant and direct benefit to the employer, Ms. Vetter said. Through a customized data dashboard, EMC is able to track financial indicators including total and per-capita health care spending, plan-specific enrollment and paid claims totals, and member out-of-pocket costs. Those metrics then can be compared against utilization data such as hospital visits, diagnoses, prescriptions and treatments received, as well as wellness performance statistics.

The results, Ms. Vetter said, speak for themselves. Since implementing the HealthLink system in 2004, EMC estimates it has saved more than $223 million in health care expenditures and lowered the percent increase of its health care costs to 4.6% in 2010, well under the national average of 7%.

“And that's without any cost shifting,” Ms. Vetter said. “We have not had any plan design changes since 2004.”

However companies decide to integrate technology into their existing wellness plans or launch a new tech-friendly program, panelists warned that implementation must be gradual and that a successful program must maintain the employees and their dependents as its central focus.

With appropriate attention and sensitivity to common employee concerns—incentives, ease of use, support from senior management, communication, privacy and types of services offered—panelists said employers are in the best possible position to drive workers and their families toward healthier lifestyles.

“Beyond the fact that a majority of Americans get their health care coverage from their employer, look at where they spend their time,” Mr. Risinger said. “A third of their time is spent in the workplace. You as an employer have a much greater chance of influencing their behavior than any other activity in their daily lives.”